There are many ways to think about higher education in the modern world. Perhaps the most important distinction is between what used to be called liberal arts education versus technical training, or vo-tech education.
Vo-tech is training in a particular skill, learning from someone else how to do something. Vo-tech education is eminently practical. In this way, schooling in automotive repair or how to be an electrician is not unlike schooling in law or medicine: they each teach students how to exercise some defined set of skills, and most technical programs culminate with some kind of certificate or license. In many ways, vo-tech training has become the reigning paradigm of much of modern higher education.
Classical liberal arts education is different. Liberal education is the kind of education enjoyed by free minds who have the leisure to contemplate the highest and permanent questions: What is the good, the true, the beautiful? What is the right way to live, and what is the purpose, end, or telos of human life? Many great minds have written many great books as they thought through these sorts of questions to great depths. Liberal education finds great assistance in the study of those books, to be sure. Some liberal arts colleges even market their own as a kind of “great books program.”
The Meaning of Liberal Education
But if liberal education means anything, it means each individual ultimately must think through these questions for himself because there are no simple or pre-packaged answers to the highest questions. With regard to the great questions of the human condition, there is no “teacher’s guide” that presents all the answers neatly categorized. One might argue in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas that merely understanding these questions and all they entail, without necessarily answering them, is the goal of liberal education, both ambitious and humble at the same time.
These alternative views of education—liberal versus vo-tech—are not easily understood by each other, nor is each much appreciated from the point of view of the other. Those who are not liberally educated, especially, tend to dismiss liberal education because it is not particularly useful.
The Value of Liberal Education
Liberal education, in other words, may not be useful in building a house, administering medicine, or staving off the tax-man, the way that the art or science of a carpenter, a physician, or an accountant is. But that’s because the aim of liberal education is not merely to help us do something but to help us understand something, namely, ourselves and the world in which we live. Liberal education is not servile: its value is not measured by the service it can perform for us or for others. Liberal education is education for its own sake—learning not for the sake of doing, but learning for the sake of learning, understanding for the sake of understanding.
THE LIBERTY IN LIBERAL EDUCATION
Liberal education must be interested in political liberty, without which there can be no liberal education. Thus liberal education and the political science of liberty reinforce one another and form two sides of the same coin. Free minds study and teach the conditions of freedom so that free minds might continue to study and teach freely.
Political science arises from the fact that every human task is informed by some art or some science that instructs us how to do the task better. Each art produces a product or condition that is used for something nobler, forming a ladder of higher and higher purposes. The art of saddle-making, for example, produces saddles which are used by horsemen; the art of horsemanship produces riders who are used as cavalry by generals; the art of generalship is used by an army to seek victory in battle.
One Highest Art
But if each practical art serves a higher purpose than itself, is there one highest art that does not point beyond itself? Is there a comprehensive science that instructs and gives order to all other sciences and arts? According to no less an authority than Aristotle (whom Aquinas admiringly called, “The Philosopher”), there is one such comprehensive science: Political science. Through the study of politics and the human nature that makes politics both possible and necessary, political science offers an education that illuminates for the mind a way to understand all human activities and human phenomena and how each part of the human condition relates to the others.
Consider the victory secured by the general. What should we do with victory? Should we continue to make war (we can always find new enemies, if needed) merely for the sake of war? Or is war servile? Is war in the service of something else? Is war, perhaps, in the service of peace? Through intensive study of human nature, political science teaches us that war is not the highest good; rather, war is in the service of the peace it aims to produce.
HAPPINESS AND CHARACTER
But even peace is not the highest human good. Once peace is won, we still can ask: What should we do with our peace? Political science answers that peace provides the opportunity to live well, to strive for physical, moral, and intellectual excellence. In our study of political science, we discover that all human actions point to the good life, the happy life, the life of virtue.
Freedom Requires Citizens of Good Character
Happiness does not necessarily mean the satisfaction of any and all appetites. The drug addict or alcoholic might satisfy his appetites, but he likely is not very happy. Happiness, rather, arises from the active cultivation and exercise of our physical, moral, and intellectual capacities. It is why the original definition of “virtue” meant simply, “excellence.” It is why there is in human nature “an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness,” as a wise man once said. Happiness requires good character because a person who lacks good character will not be a happy. And political science, therefore, can be understood as the science of happiness and the character most likely to experience it.
Any political scientist with any common sense (rare in the halls of modern academe, for sure) knows that political society cannot ignore the character of its citizens. A free society requires limited, constitutional government. Similarly, limited, constitutional government requires citizens who are morally self-restrained and individually responsible. Freedom requires citizens of good character, in other words. And just as self-government requires good character, so too the intellectual rigors of liberal education require self-restraint. Minds enslaved to passions and appetites are not minds that can think freely or think well.
It turns out that the character of the free citizen and the character best fit for liberal education is one and the same: a good person.